As Putin marches....
UKRAINE. Begin with what Putin, who yesterday, as Russian military movements suggested to US intel that a wider invasion may be imminent--in an unintended attempt at humor--called the deposing of pro-Russian president Yanukovich an "anti-constitutional coup and armed seizure of power." Compare that to what Tsar Vlad the Bad said last year as to Syria:
We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
Hillary Clinton, in strong, apt remarks yesterday, likened Putin's move to the "Heim ins Riech" ("home into the Empire") policy Hitler pursued with GErman minorities living outside of Germany.
As Kiev complains of rising Russian pressure, and Russian-speaking thugs in east Ukraine spread unrest against the Kiev leaders (though in 1991 Ukraine's Russian speakers voted heavily in favor of independence from Russia), Britain readies to back off sanctions against Putin for invading a sovereign country. But economic leverage against Russia is greater than many think, two ex-Bush officials write:
In 2006 and 2009, Russia cut its gas exports as an economic weapon against Ukraine, rattling both Western Europeans and global energy markets. In January 2009, the last time Russia turned off the spigot, it supplied 58% of Ukraine's gas imports and 40% of Europe's.
But this is 2014, and circumstances have changed. Through persistent and effective diversification, Ukraine has reduced its Russian gas imports by more than 10%, while the EU has weaned itself by over 20%. Unlike the dead-of-winter 2009 gas cutoff, this crisis is occurring with spring around the corner. Ukraine and EU countries reportedly have stockpiled some gas supplies to reach the warmer months.
Likewise, Russia is not in the position of economic strength that it was during its previous aggressive encounters with Ukraine and Georgia. A month ago, before the crisis, Russia had to cancel its domestic bond auction two weeks in a row due to poor market conditions. On Monday, the ruble hit an all-time low as financial markets were spooked by the mounting trouble in Ukraine.
Even more important to the Kremlin and its cronies is access to the Western financial system, especially as a safe harbor for their investments. No sensible commissar keeps any more wealth than he has to inside Russia. Russians put their cash in Cyprus or Swiss banks, Miami or New York condos, or British sports teams.
This is where financial and visa sanctions can squeeze the would-be Bonapartes in Moscow. Some of us pushed so hard in 2012 for the Magnitsky Act to be passed along with normal trading relations with Russia precisely because we feared this kind of Kremlin power play. President Obama resisted the bill until it was forced on him, and then he limited the names on the sanctions list. But now he may be glad to have this foreign-policy tool.
Asset freezes and other sanctions could target the Russian elite and their financial links to the West. Call this the "Banco Delta Asia" approach, after the U.S. Treasury's 2005 money-laundering crackdown against a small Macau bank that held accounts for North Korean companies and the ruling Kim family. Washington discovered that making the bank a pariah institution had a huge effect on Pyongyang's ability to conduct trade.
Russian oligarchs are vulnerable, and what we've learned from our Iran sanctions experience can sharpen the arrows in our quiver; Russia's economy reportedly is in freefall. Note also that the US & EU discouraged Europe from "fracking," else Russia would be weaker today. Russia has plans to link the Crimean peninsula to Russia proper, across the 3-mile long Strait of Kerch (which divides the Sea of Azov to the north from the Black Sea to the south). In 2010 Ukraine's pro-Russian regime entered into a memorandum of understanding (legalese for setting general principles) about such a bridge, but daunting technical problems endangering the foundation--earthquakes and winter ice--made the project unachievable in 1943, when Hitler wanted such a bridge.
George Will sees Obama emulating Jimmy Carter's feckless policies towards the former Soviet Union. Mona Charen (rightly) sees "foreign policy cheap talk" in Obama's posturing. Obama's weakness is amplified by the terminal ineptitude he demonstrated with the ObamaCare roll-out. Ex-Bush WH aide Peter Wehner sees the president's own "arrogance and incompetence" leading to his foreign policy implosion.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, deeply knowledgeable about the region, warns that if Putin crushes Ukraine he will threaten the Baltic nations next:
Much depends on how clearly the West conveys to the dictator in the Kremlin — a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler — that NATO cannot be passive if war erupts in Europe. If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened.
This does not mean that the West, or the United States, should threaten war. But in the first instance, Russia’s unilateral and menacing acts mean the West should promptly recognize the current government of Ukraine as legitimate. Uncertainty regarding its legal status could tempt Putin to repeat his Crimean charade. Second, the West should convey — privately at this stage, so as not to humiliate Russia — that the Ukrainian army can count on immediate and direct Western aid so as to enhance its defensive capabilities. There should be no doubt left in Putin’s mind that an attack on Ukraine would precipitate a prolonged and costly engagement, and Ukrainians should not fear that they would be left in the lurch.
Meanwhile, NATO forces, consistent with the organization’s contingency planning, should be put on alert. High readiness for some immediate airlift to Europe of U.S. airborne units would be politically and militarily meaningful. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be precipitated by further adventurist use of force in the middle of Europe.
Douglas Feith writes that Putin may miscaulate re Baltics; NATO may indeed fight. Just like, it may be added, Hitler calculated that after ceding Czechoslovakia Britain & France would not fight over Poland. They did, and the most ruinous wa in human history began. If Russia attacks Ukraine in full, a retired US general who knows the Ukrainian military predicts Ukraine's "very hard" soldiers will fight.
If there is a sliver lining in the proverbial dark--in this case, VERY dark--cloud, it may be what historian Walter Russell Mead sees ahead: Putin's aggression will discredit Obama's nuclear-zero push:
If President Obama does this, however, and Ukraine ends up losing chunks of territory to Russia, it is pretty much the end of a rational case for non-proliferation in many countries around the world. If Ukraine still had its nukes, it would probably still have Crimea. It gave up its nukes, got worthless paper guarantees, and also got an invasion from a more powerful and nuclear neighbor.
The choice here could not be more stark. Keep your nukes and keep your land. Give up your nukes and get raped. This will be the second time that Obama administration policy has taught the rest of the world that nuclear weapons are important things to have. The Great Loon of Libya gave up his nuclear program and the west, as other leaders see it, came in and wasted him.
It is almost unimaginable after these two powerful demonstrations of the importance of nuclear weapons that a country like Iran will give up its nuclear ambitions. Its heavily armed, Shiite-persecuting neighbor Pakistan has a hefty nuclear arsenal and Pakistan’s links with Iran’s nemesis and arch-rival Saudi Arabia grow closer with every passing day. What piece of paper could Obama possibly sign—especially given that his successor is almost certainly going to be more hawkish—that would replace the security that Iran can derive from nuclear weapons? North Korea would be foolish not to make the same calculation, and a number of other countries will study Ukraine’s fate and draw the obvious conclusions.
Bottom Line. The stakes are huge. Putin will play hardball so long as America plays softball.
Letter from the Capitol, LFTC, Foreign Policy, Conservative Politics